Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Natalie Vestin and “The Sea of Crises”

As writers ourselves, we’re always interested in our authors’ process. Here Natalie Vestin shares the inspiration and research behind her essay “The Sea of Crises,” which appears in our current issue: 

My essay “Sea of Crises” was inspired by one of my dad’s stories about Mare Crisium, a valley on the moon. I’d known about the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but I didn’t know there were other geographic features with names on the lunar surface. Part of my research for this essay included Giovanni Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (his 1651 atlas of space) and astronomer Thomas Gwyn Elger’s 1895 treatise The Moon. The rest of the research happened accidentally. I had the moon and the Sea of Crises in the back of my mind, and I was reading Vera Rubin’s Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters and books about science and religious faith. I was also walking a lot at night during the winter. January in Minnesota is nightmarish except for the bright, bright stars and planets; the sky becomes a sort of solace you can look toward when the rest of the outdoors is trying to kill you.

 While I was learning more about lunar cartography, I became fascinated with Riccioli, the Jesuit priest who drew maps of the moon and named its features. He’s a cipher; not much is written about him, save for a few accounts of his odd scientific experiments and his unfortunate testimony against Galileo. I was drawn to him, because I was thinking about why people love – really love – the moon, and here’s this astronomer priest trying to walk a fine line between using science to say what he thinks about God and attracting the attention of Inquisitors. What do you write when you’re too terrified to write anything? I guess you write about the moon.

I wrote this essay in a series of poems first – poems imagining this priest, poems about the broken moon, poems about how astronomy grew out of thinking about the physical nature of God. The facts that came out of the research were important, but I also wanted to capture what first fascinated me about the Sea of Crises – that moment when I learned about it and wanted to make it me, wanted to map the moon to myself and think that all bodies can have seas of crises. That’s what’s lovely about research: what you look at and write about has the ability to speak for you and map you when you lack other ways of expression.

–Natalie Vestin

Thoughts on Research from Our Authors: Donna Steiner

We asked some of the authors that we have published to reflect on research in their nonfiction work. Donna Steiner wrote the essay “Studying the Trees” published in our second issue. What follows are some of her thoughts on the research that she conducted for her essay.

Some of the things I researched for “Studying the Trees” include the facts and figures about “visible light;” the names of our local birds; and a few words I already knew the meanings of.  I do the latter in the interest of precision.  I have a deep desire to be as accurate and specific as possible, and that often means a relatively pleasurable hunt for the right words and the right sounds.

In the case of the birds listed on page 74, for example, I think the names matter for several reasons.  One, the words are wonderful in themselves.  Martins, loons, curlews, grackles, vireos – how could I resist the sonic qualities alone?  But also, precision enhances imagery.  I don’t need to show every bird, because the names themselves each evoke a distinct image.  The reader can therefore visualize a scarlet tanager or a mourning dove or a cedar waxwing. Precision becomes a kind of shorthand.  And I believe that shorthand can be lushly evocative in terms of what the reader hears and sees and, hopefully, in terms of what they feel.